Traditionally, portfolios as part of the college admissions process were solely the domain of certain types of academic programs, namely, architecture, the performing arts, fine arts, film, and other visual or auditory mediums.

In an effort to create a more holistic admissions process, many colleges and universities are opening the door to the submission of ancillary materials such as papers, projects, artwork, or videos showcasing extracurricular talents. The Coalition Application, now in use at over 116 top schools, encourages applicants to include these types of materials in a digital “locker.” Many other schools are encouraging students to submit multimedia supplements through applications like ZeeMee, a platform that allows users to share their unique stories and talents with admissions officers through short videos.

In this blog, we will introduce the broad range of portfolio requirements that applicants are likely to encounter as they seek admission to traditionally portfolio-centric programs. Additionally, we highlight the ever-expanding world of portfolios that can benefit the average college applicant.

Architecture

Schools of architecture vary greatly in terms of their requirements, running the gamut from an extensive showcase of architectural sketches all the way to not requesting a single work sample.

Syracuse University requires 12-24 examples of your best work. Cornell asks for 15-20. The New School advises that students with no architectural background “should demonstrate elemental understanding of 3 dimensional form and space, composition, and basic understanding of light/shadow, depth and color through sketches, drawings, photography, crafts, sculptures, etc.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Northeastern University does not require a portfolio submission of any kind, as they acknowledge that most high schools lack quality programming in this area. Instead, they seek only the most academically qualified applicants. 

Dance/Music/Drama  

Typically, those seeking entrance to a performing arts program will be required to submit a portfolio complete with a multitude of video clips meeting specified criteria. Those who make the grade will then be invited to a live audition.

Requirements in the performing arts are ordinarily quite particular and involve using the online application system, Slideroom. Amherst, for example, requires highly specified supplements for their Music program including “a recording of yourself in solo performance (if classical instrumental, voice, or jazz) or group performance (if jazz, rock, pop or other) of 2-4 tracks, not longer than 10 minutes total, exhibiting contrasting examples of expression and technique for classical submissions or varied stylistic approaches (swing, Latin, ballad, blues, etc.) for jazz submissions.” Amherst’s requirements for Dance and Theater are a bit less rigid; they essentially just want to see a video of you in action.

Connecticut College’s Music program is far more open-ended in their requirements. They suggest that artistically inclined applicants send along an optional arts supplement comprised of two contrasting pieces of music that best demonstrate your musical ability.

Art

Stanford sets different requirements for those applying to different programs within the fine or performing arts. Photography applicants must submit ten photographs. Those pursuing Painting, Drawing or Printmaking concentrations must submit ten images of their work as well. Students in Video, Digital Media, or Electronic Art can submit no more than three videos at a maximum ten minutes in length. NYU requires Studio Art applicants to submit not only 15-20 work samples but also a one-page statement explaining your goals as an artist, your influences, and your background and training.

Set Design

Those seeking admission to a prestigious set or production design program will need to compile very specific (and not to mention spectacularly executed) items for their portfolios. At NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, applicants “must include at least one three dimensional scale model with figures for one scene of a script (or photos of models), a scale ground plan for same model, and five examples of architectural sketches (furniture, architectural details, interior details, etc).”

Requirements for Costume Design or Lighting Design are equally detailed.

Entry into Yale’s program will require either an in-person portfolio or the physical mailing of an intimidating list of catalogued items in order to be considered. Boston University’s program offers a two-step online review, first submitting up to 20 digital images through Slideroom, followed by a Skype Portfolio Review with the committee.

Film

To apply to SUNY Purchase’s film program, one must submit ten samples of artwork (including videos) along with a statement about your role in each production. At George Mason, the process includes a video sample submission but also a sample treatment for a film or television show as well as a 500-word essay explaining your interest in film as an area of study. USC’s renowned film program requires a mix of writing samples, a personal statement, and photo/video clips of your previous work.

Highly-Specified Programs

Some schools with highly specified concentration areas also require portfolio submissions. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology applicants to the Medical Illustration, Metals and Jewelry, and Furniture Design programs must all provide additional materials, with very specific guidelines. Applicants to the Medical Illustration program must “Include at least six drawings of natural forms such as seashells, plants, human figures, or animals, rendered in a single medium.”

Portfolios for all

ZeeMee offers students the chance to make videos that are a maximum of 26 seconds. Students can sign up for a free ZeeMee account, create videos, and then submit their link as part of their application submission. Students are encouraged to use this opportunity to simply introduce themselves or to answer one of the suggested prompts.

Many highly-selective colleges allow students to submit writing samples as optional components of their application. Harvard and Yale will take a look at any scholarly articles, research papers, or creative writing that you wish to share. The University of Chicago encourages the submission of a “short” creative writing sample or scientific research abstract. We encourage you to take schools up on their offer of including a writing sample, but to be judicious in your selection, submitting only one or two examples of your absolute best work.

Key Takeaways

  • Most college programs in the arts require the submission of some type of portfolio containing work samples.
  • The requirements vary greatly by school/program.
  • Pay careful attention to the detailed instructions regarding portfolio submission and provide EXACTLY what is asked; you don’t want to give an unnecessary edge to your competition.
  • If you lack experience in your area of interest, explore programs that place greater emphasis on your grades than your portfolio.
  • All college applicants, not just those entering art/design fields, can benefit from including portfolio items such as writing samples, short videos highlighting their talents and skills, or simply by establishing a more human connection with an admissions committee.
Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).